UrtheCast

Russia’s New Fireball Defense System

It might seem easy at first blush to dismiss Russia’s call for a massive global defense effort to protect against meteors and other space objects that threaten Earth.

But can you blame them? Twice in the last 105 years, once-in-a-lifetime meteors have wreaked devastation on Russian soil.

Most recently was the much recorded and played explosion of a 17-meter-wide, 10,000-metric-ton space rock that blew up more than a dozen miles above ground, with the force of what Western Ontario physics professor Peter Brown estimates at 470 kilotons of TNT.

The earliest atomic bombs were a mere 15 to 20 kilotons.

Shutterstock.com/Mopic

2013 Begins With A Bang

The Feb. 15 shockwave blew out glass and damaged buildings for miles, injuring more than 1,000 residents of nearby Chelyabinsk.

It was only back in 1908 when an asteroid — estimated at 50 meters — flattened more than 1,200 square kilometers of forest near Tunguska, in western Siberia.

Russia appears to be ground zero for unlikely space events.

But it’s not all that bizarre considering Russia’s land mass, and the acknowledgement by NASA and other space agencies that thousands of meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere every day, only to burn up or fall harmlessly in the vast bodies of water that cover more than two-thirds of this planet’s surface.

Thousands of meteors. Every day.

Strongest Since Tunguska

On Tuesday, Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office called the Feb. 15 meteor explosion over the Ural Mountains the most powerful since Tunguska.

That’s the conclusion after scientists from NASA and elsewhere analyzed infrasound readings taken from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), whose main purpose is to monitor nuclear explosions.

How it works: Meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere cause ripples in the infrasound, allowing the monitors to record how long the meteor was in the air, which direction it traveled, and how much energy it unleashed. The Chelyabinsk meteor was the strongest ever detected by the CTBTO network.

Call For Action

Taking all of that into account, it should be no surprise that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin called Saturday for global unity in establishing a defense system against space objects, as outlined by RIA Novosti.

“This system should become global and universal in its technical and political sense, and is a matter of agreement in the framework of the United Nations,” Rogozin is quoted as saying.

The UN, through its longstanding Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, has collected information on space debris, both natural and manmade, for years, as have Russian, Canadian, European, U.S., and numerous other space agencies around the globe.

The need to monitor near-Earth objects and their potential threat to the Earth is not debated. Coming to a consensus on how to manage that information remains problematic.

DA14, the near-Earth asteroid that had the world’s attention early on Feb. 15 as it edged to within 17,000 miles — before being upstaged by the Russian meteor explosion — was spotted almost a year ago. Even with that information, no one was sure what to do about it.

Space Miners Step Up

Perhaps it was fated, then, that as DA14 drew near, two companies touting their potentials as space miners stepped forward with similar ideas for developing technology to move asteroids.

Deep Space Industries, in announcing its entrance into the asteroid mining market earlier this year, noted on its website that “more than 9,100 near-Earth asteroids have been counted, with more than 900 new NEAs found annually in recent years.” While timing trips to asteroids that come near earth “once every five to ten years” would have its challenges, some were small enough to move “to stable locations near Earth for processing,” DSI noted.

DSI’s main challenger in the field remains the much talked about Planetary Resources, the company that charged onto the scene last year with substantial backing from prominent entrepreneurs, including one of the founders of Google.

In what may have been a prescient news release the day before the Russian meteor explosion, Planetary Resources laid claim to the idea that “future asteroid mining industry will provide capability to aid the deflection of  potentially hazardous objects near Earth.”

Perhaps the technology will some day exist. And don’t be surprised if investment comes from somewhere in Russia.

AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com.

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